radio free memories

I have three major laments about oldies radio:

1) Every oldies station I’ve ever heard–pre-prepackaged satellite uplink era–plays the same songs, which leads me to wonder if they’re all just using the same Time Life box set and just hitting random from day-to-day;

2) Somewhere along the line, oldies went from being 50s-60s-70s, to 60s-70s, meaning 65-75 and, if I wanted to listen to that–a hint: I don’t–there are any number of ‘classic’ rock stations in the milieu from which I could choose;

and 3) None of them in the satellite uplink era will play a song all the way through. In fact, some songs only play for about thirty seconds or so before they get faded into something else, which makes me wonder why anyone listens to it at all.

Clearly, it’s not about the music.

The other night, I had to make a dinner run and, sans a vehicle with Bluetooth access or ready access to my music collection at home, I was forced to do what drivers did for decades: flip stations to find something that wouldn’t make me want to steer my car into the closest, most readily-accessible telephone pole available. I stumbled upon a radio show hosted by a gentleman who referred to himself as ‘the old record collector’. As a frugal audiophile and poor trash record collector myself, I was immediately intrigued. He drew widely from the 20s through the 80s based off the catalog of Linda Ronstadt, no doubt inspired by her recent public disclosure of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

These kinds of broadcasts are the stuff of legend now, existing only at the scant few independent freeform stations and college radio studios not yet retrofitted for NPR for budgetary concerns. And yet, even this down home DJ in the Ozarks couldn’t help himself from interjecting random old radio commercials, snippets and other cultural auditory ephemera in between songs. Then I caught the name of the program.

Nostalgia time. Old record collectors notwithstanding, it’s not about the music.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering the past, or to even prefer it to the present. In my home, you will find a newer vehicle in the garage, but my head unit of choice is a 1968 Fisher 175-T, a first generation solid state receiver that sounds better than just about anything that has come out since, and certainly better than the crap one might find at a big box electronics retailer. The problem begins when the past is treated with reverence while the present and future are, by fiat, profaned. Call it temporal Platonism, with the past acting as the world of forms and ideas and the present the world of objects and lesser stuff. What is is corrupted, what was is holy and, as such, sacred.

We see this played out in churches, both in a kneejerk fundamentalist lurch backwards in the employment of the hymnal’s material on a Sunday morning, and in more contemporary or emergent settings, where elements of earlier strands of Christianity are implemented for the remnant of Christian hipsters who haven’t bailed and joined an Orthodox community someplace. We see this employed in places like Branson, Missouri, which makes the lion’s share of its gross civic product on the backs of C-list musical acts (and impersonators of dead A-listers.) It is also invoked whenever anyone uses the phrase ‘in the good old days’, when, in reality, there was no such thing.

And, when it comes to oldies radio, it’s not the songs that take you back, it’s the quixotic thrill of the chase of youth that is long, long gone. They play incomplete songs to keep transporting people back to their salad days, to make them feel nostalgic for a different time, to take them away from thinking about the present (or the future, making it indirect epilogomena.)

Radio is the soundtrack of our lives, and it does nothing but make us want to watch reruns.

And in the era of lackluster radio, coupled with the advent of personalized and subscription satellite radio, it’s not just the baby boomers who harken back to the days of malt shops and love-ins.

Paul Tillich speaks poetically to this condition in one of several landmark theological works, The Eternal Now. In it, he deals delicately and forcefully to matters of remembrance and forgetting, with echoes of Paul the Apostle’s dilemma about things he wants and doesn’t want to do: “Life could not continue without throwing the past into the past, liberating the present from its burden. Without this power life would be without a future; it would be enslaved by the past. Nothing new could happen; and even the old could not be, for what is now old was once something new, that might or might not have come into existence. Life, without pushing the past into the past would be altogether impossible. But life has this power, as we are able to observe in the growth of every plant … and animal.”

(Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear you on the other side of the screen calling me a retwit. Don’t miss the forest for the trees here.)

What Tillich references above is precisely what I’m talking about, though he’s speaking to the overall existential condition with relation to God’s presence in the activity of humankind. That, and oldies radio didn’t exist at the time. The past is necessary to force the present, the present to usher in the future. There is such a thing as healthy respect for the past, but the temptation is for the present to be usurped by a memory that may or may not be skewed by our preference for escape.

It’s the difference between using a superior, older radio to listen to music against holding onto the Rambler with the rusted-out passenger door and the engine that needs sweet nothings (or f-bombs) to turn over. Some things are worth carrying with us as long as possible, while others are rightly obliterated by the relentless auger of time. That said, nothing is worth abdicating the present, for this is what is.

The delicate balance of the present against the past and the future is the ongoing work of discipleship. Disruption of that balance is sin against self and against God (if you will); the absence of condemnation in that disruption is grace, providence which allows us to restore that balance is mercy.

And radio itself may not be sin, but it is, in this respect sinful. A mindless pursuit of that which was and will never be again is idolatrous by nature: past over present is ascription of worth to false over the true.

Plus, who wants to listen to songs indiscriminately butchered by a machine set to shuffle? Apparently those who aren’t listening to anything but their own vanity, chasing after the wind.

Radio free memories are better off radio-free.


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